Initial L.A. County Sheriff's explanation for keeping news media from getting close enough to tree-perched trespassing protesters to see and hear them: The whole area, including the approach street, is a crime scene. The later explanation: OK, it wasn't a crime scene. We wanted to protect the protesters from any harm that might have befallen them. Nathan McIntire reports for Monrovia Patch.
Environmental activists John Quigley, Andrea Bowers, Julia Jaye Posin, and Travis Jochimsen snuck into a fenced off area of Arcadia woodlands last week and each scaled a tree. After they eventually came down, so did the trees.
The four were arrested for trespassing, and the trees they were trying to save were eliminated with bulldozers to make way for sediment from the Santa Anita Dam.
Certainly the point of the "tree sitters'" last-ditch actions was to commit an act of civil disobedience with the purpose of preventing the county from cutting down at least a few of the 179 oak trees that ultimately fell. But also critical to their plan was the hope that their actions would rally public support and pressure county officials into halting the destruction of the woodlands.
They now contend that their stunt failed partly because the community, along with the media, was not allowed to get close enough to see what was taking place in the woodlands as the tree sitters watched from atop their perches, horrified.
Last Wednesday, as the trees were being chopped down, the Sheriffs Department blocked off the entrance to the woodlands, which sat on property owned by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.
But they didn't stop there.
Extending their barricade about 20 yards into a public street, reporters and citizens were kept away from the scene of the destruction.
Quigley told Arcadia Patch that the tree sitters initially believed their protest had worked when they noticed contractors abruptly stop as news helicopters flew overhead.
"There was a moment when they first started to destroy this beautiful sycamore, and we started yelling at them, and then the helicopters came for the first time in a major way, and then they stopped," Quigley said. "And there was this feeling that maybe it had been called off because they were waiting to see what kind of public reaction there was. And then someone must have decided, 'We got to get this over with.'"
Quigley said he believes that community members and reporters were kept out to prevent a public outcry that might jeopardize the tree removal plan. And he isn't the only one upset that access to the site was cut off.
Freelance news videographer Jerry Day got into a heated, on-camera argument with a sheriff's deputy who would not allow him or other reporters near the woodlands site last Wednesday. Day was told a crime scene extended out into the street past the gate and says he was forcibly moved behind the sheriffs' barricade.
"I was physically pushed, shoved out of that area," Day said. "There was a guy in a tree in a tent about a half mile away. That doesn’t make a public street a crime scene."
Capt. Joseph Fennell, the head of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Temple Station, said that a sergeant at the scene was mistaken when he declared the area a crime scene.
"That was misspoken and I apologize on behalf of the sergeant," Fennell said in a telephone interview. "It wasn't a crime scene, it was just a very dangerous worksite at the time."
Instead of trying to keep media from videotaping or photographing the scene, Fennell said the area was cordoned off because two protesters were picketing right outside the woodlands entrance.
"The reason why we didn't let the media stand up against the gate was because of the two protesters there," Fennell said. "We wanted to isolate those two protesters, not only for our welfare but also for their own welfare. We didn't want them to be subjected to any unruly act that would harm them."
The unusual barricade configuration--which allowed two protesters inside but no more--struck attorney and open government advocate Terry Francke as an attempt to undermine the protesters and obscure what was happening in the woodlands site.
"The sheriff's department is obviously declaring closer surroundings to the trees a "crime scene" with no object other than to deny the protesters the media audience that it was their sole mission to attract," Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, wrote in an email after viewing video footage showing the confrontation with Day. "This use of the crime scene rationale to control both speech and press is patently unconstitutional and would be so declared by a court if any in the media cared to put the issue to the test."
Paul Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, also said the sheriffs department exceeded their authority in barring access to the site.
"From what I see on the video it would appear that the police have gone too far," Scheer said in an interview. "While they do have the authority to cordon off a crime scene in order to protect the public and facilitate the apprehension of suspects ... they can't expand the perimeter of the crime scene beyond what is necessary for law enforcement purposes in order to exclude press coverage."
However, Scheer said an argument could be made that police have the authority to limit press access if they believe "the very presence of the media may induce people to engage in a crime that they wouldn't engage in if the media were not present."
But because Fennell has since retracted the department's characterization of the area as a crime scene, the question of whether media incitement was possible is presumably moot.
Though access was restricted to the site on public property, private homeowners allowed reporters into their backyards where video footage and photographs were captured of the tree removal. Additionally, Quigley was able to send out video footage he took himself while in the tree.
But Quigley said that the sheriff's actions posed the toughest challenge for protesters because they had no way to get their message across to a broad audience in real time, and the "violent" destruction of the trees was only witnessed after it was too late.
"Had the community been able to be on site, and even if the media had been able to be on site, I think they may have backed off for at least a day," Quigley said. "The biggest challenge we had, and what I think really affected the outcome, is that the community couldn’t gather by the tree. So we were isolated, we were under their control."
The video shows two typical casualties in such confrontations: The journalists denied their rights under the constitution and the Penal Code and the line officer who will be second-guessed and hung out to dry by the department brass, who may have fed him the "crime scene" script in the first place. Incidents like this and the coverage barriers at the San Bruno gas line explosion show that the legislature's Penal Code charter of access for the press to cover accidents and disasters is worthless whenever a law enforcement representative decides to ignore or play games with the law by pronouncing the denied area a crime scene. But in standoffs between tribes with such deep cultures of contempt for each other, one gets the respect one fights for. Only one California media organization is known to have gone to court to enforce its access rights—a short-lived "underground" newspaper in the 1960s.